As a Spaniard living in Britain, it has been strange to read the coverage of Catalonia in recent days – most of the commentary being pro-separation. There has been no sense as to why most people in Spain feel so strongly about keeping the country together. Britain has been a democracy for generations: Spain has not been so fortunate.
I was born in the days of a democracy and my grandmother would proudly take me to her weekly meetings at the Conservative party headquarters. She taught me about the four pillars of our Constitution: freedom, justice, equality and political pluralism. And it’s the last pillar, pluralism, that’s now under threat.
The civil war is still quite fresh in the memory of the Spanish, and it’s easy to see parallels between now and 1934. Then, Spain was split in half: the left (extreme and moderate) and the nationalists (disintegrators, extremists and moderates). Both managed to use their hate to destroy any common achievement and left a country with death, pain – and, ultimately, dictatorship. The peace and cohesion of our country is not something Spaniards take for granted even now. That’s why the tensions are so troubling. In both London and Spain I’ve met quite a few Catalans who are hostile to people from Madrid, who apparently represent the oppressing power to them.
It’s not as if separatists are a majority in Catalonia. Even in their kangaroo referendum last weekend, the votes cast for separation make up about 30pc of voters – those in favour of keeping Spain together will not have taken part on the illegal vote. Why such low support for separation? Perhaps because Catalonia has the same kind of devolved powers as Scotland with health, education and police run from Barcelona. Yet the bizarre idea of the Spanish as oppressors seems to be taking root with a new generation of Catalans – who seem to place far less value on the project of a democratic, unified Spain.
Matthew Parris had a point when he asked in The Spectator recently …
Why is Carles Puigdemont, President of Catalonia, doing this? I’d speculate that, worried lest secessionist fervour abate, Catalan separatists actually want a violent response from Madrid to refuel the flame…There is, too, in the Catalan mindset, a certain glorification of victimhood. Were the tanks and the cameras really to roll, there’s a part of the Catalan spirit that would find grim satisfaction in telling the EU and the world: ‘Look what they’ve done to us.’
Quite. The Spanish government did not trigger Article 155 of the Constitution that allows central government to take over the powers of the Catalonian government. Instead, it left matters with High Court of Justice of Catalonia which ruled the referendum illegal and asked police to do its dirty work. This deployment gave the pro-independents exactly the kind of international publicity that they sought. You will have seen the photographs of police clashing with protesters. What I suspect you won’t have seen is pictures of the many Catalans who helped the police, or the policemen injured on duty in Barcelona.
There has been plenty criticism of the police deployment, but if the law is being broken in such a shameless way then a crime is being committed. This was not a brave exercise in democracy: the unionists were never going to take part in the referendum. It was a stunt, and one that had been declared illegal by the Constitutional Court. How to justify this at the expense of public money? What was this ever going to achieve, other than divide and destabilise?
Spain has had too much of this civil strife in its history: most people in Spain, and in Catalonia, don’t want to go back to this era. And in the more aggressive voices of Catalan separation, you can hear the voices from the past spoiling for a fight. The coverage in Britain tended not to explain that the referendum was no such thing, that it was illegal and that the Spanish Prime Minister has a solemn duty to uphold the constitution. The pictures published in the newspapers showed the police in the worst possible light.
My generation of Spaniards are responsible for protecting – and leaving to our children – the stable, peaceful, constitutional country that we were lucky enough to be born into. Perhaps we should turn back again to our grandparents to remind ourselves that this unity really is worth defending.